We have a song in Liverpool one of which verses goes, “It’s six in a bed at the old Pier Head, It’s Liverpool Town for me”. Throughout our Country there are still people living in conditions little better than this.
Within months of becoming a councillor way back in 1975 I was made Chair of the Homeless Committee. We had a problem in the city in that we were overspending our budget by more than £250,000 – a lot of money in those days! As I looked into the issues of homelessness in the City I found the problem was far worse than losing money. If you have never read George Orwell’s ‘Down and Outs in London and Paris’ do so. He describes there how in the 1920s there were appalling conditions in which homeless people, mostly men, were housed in squalid, foul properties with speculators making a profit from their misfortune.
That was true across the UK and particularly in Liverpool. One hostel called the “Unique Hostel” in Everton was responsible for one third of the deaths in Everton Ward. 230+ men were herded into a property with just 6 toilets and those on the ground floor which could be up to 10 minutes’ walk away from where old men with poor bladders actually slept. The result was buckets of crap and urine and a stench everywhere you went.
There were other smaller versions of this but the charitable sector was no better. The Salvation Army hostels were clean but austere. You could get in during the afternoon if you went to the prayer meeting. This was true of the hostels for both men and women.
My proudest day in politics was entering the Unique Hostel building with a possession order followed by an army of staff with heaters; beds; cleansing materials; clothes, decent food and within days made it habitable but by no means perfect. Our actions were opposed by the Tory Party with Masonic links to the Company’s owners.
Within two years we closed it for good. We created small units which could be made into semi-permanent or permanent homes. We closed down the two Salvation Army hostels and grant aided them to build new small hostels for about 40 men and 40 women.
The work I did then gave me an absolute understanding of what housing meant. Not just a financial asset, not just bricks and mortar but a home where you can be secure and from which you can go out to deal with life’s’ adversities. Put simply if you don’t have a home you don’t have a future.
Soon after that the conversation changed as Mrs Thatcher pushed through her right to buy legislation. People in social housing were seen to be failures; outcasts; misfits. Houses were sold at huge discounts and we were only allowed to use 25% of the takings for more housing. Shamefully the Blair/Brown Governments continued the process. They made no change at all in the Thatcherite system and in the 13 years of a Labour Government the number of social homes was reduced by more than 330,000.
The Lib Dems debated housing at our recent Conference and our main recommendations are given below. The most important conclusion that the Party came to was that every has a right in a Country as wealthy as ours to a ‘house’ that is appropriate to their needs; which is warm and safe; and which is set in a neighbourhood or community that is clean safe and well managed.
I agree with all these recommendations but I do not think they go far enough. One of the things that I was also proud of in those early Liberal years was the fact that we created with residents the biggest housing cooperative programme in the whole of Western Europe. We didn’t tell tenants what they needed but asked them what they wanted and then gave them the means to develop their own self run estates. Those estates have stood the test of time and have continued to provide good community led housing facilities.
I believe that the way forward for all our social housing is to empower tenants to run their own lives. I would convert both council housing departments and housing associations in to deliverers and enablers of housing supporting management by the tenants themselves community by community and estate by estate. Many housing associations are now no more than big businesses and many council housing departments are very old fashioned and not stepping up to the crease to provide a more holistic neighbourhood service.
Public sector housing providers should think of their role more holistically. They should of course be good landlords but they should also be neighbourhood investors using their close contact with people to push for and even run a range of community, environmental, training, employment and health services.
The Blair Government toyed with this concept through Tenant Management Organisations but as we saw so clearly in Kensington & Chelsea these were too often used as a way that unscrupulous councils avoided public scrutiny in the running of their estates. This type of management structure can be done and an organisation based in Liverpool called North West Housing Services provides a range of services to more than 40 small housing associations or cooperatives.
We also need to think about the tenants of private landlords. Many small private landlords run a good local service and care for their tenants. Too many however, are sharks and charlatans with up to one third of privately rented properties in some areas receiving public sector housing credits for people to live in squalid and unsafe conditions.
Licensing of private landlords should be compulsory. A proper licensing system would pay for the inspection services of environmental health and building inspectors to close down or fine bad landlords and the ability to make money through housing benefits would be denied to them. For good landlords this would be a minor expense and a minor inconvenience but they would get the benefit of the bad landlords which create problems for all private sector landlords being driven from the market.
We must end the perception in this Country that housing is just a financial asset. My house is my repository of the memories of the children and now grandchildren growing up; of tears of joy and tears of sadness. I am lucky in that I can say that my favourite place in the whole world is our bed in our house. As politicians we must leave no stone unturned in this wealthy Country to make that true for everyone.
Liberal Democrat Conference calls for:
- The creation of a British Housing Company as a dedicated, arm’s length, not for profit non-governmental body to acquire land of low amenity at current use value through compulsory acquisition to reduce prohibitive land costs and excessive developer profits.
- Removal of the cap on local authority borrowing.
- The construction of 50,000 social homes for rent per year by both councils and housing associations rising as soon as practicable to 100,000 a year.
- Local authorities to have the power to decide on the availability of Right to Buy in their areas and for Right to Buy receipts to be reinvested in social housing.
- A big expansion in ‘Rent to Own’ where occupants pay rent to housing associations, in return for an increasing stake in the property over time.
- Higher quality, safety and environmental standards in the existing housing stock including the retrofitting of 4 million homes to higher standards.
- An increase to 500% in council tax levied where homes are being deliberately bought as investment properties and left empty for long periods with a stamp duty surcharge on overseas residents purchasing such properties.
- The Government to deliver its commitment to building 300,000 homes a year by i) ensuring the workforce in the construction industry is sufficient to build them ii) encouraging new building techniques to build quality new homes in shorter timescales.
- Local government to adopt a civic house building model working in partnership with developers and supported by a planning system which is less about gatekeeping planning applications and more about creating places in which people want to live, work and play.